Australian classical music. Not quite an oxymoron, but certainly an unfamiliar phrase. Yet Australian literature has been promoted by a battery of university courses overseas, following the beachhead established by Patrick White’s Nobel Prize. Similarly, Australian art has twice had great moments of impact: the Whitechapel exhibition of 1961 for the Nolan–Boyd generation, and now the continuing worldwide interest in Aboriginal art. Our rock stars have repeatedly made worldwide reputations; in classical music, Australian singers have regularly risen to the top. But classical composition has been something else. Apart from the quirky Percy Grainger – deftly working in small forms, sometimes with large resources – no Australian composer has had a significant influence overseas (though Brett Dean is shaping up as a contender). Grainger had to abandon Australia to do so, eventually taking out American citizenship.
The third full-length English-language study of the films of Jane Campion is a book that will probably be of more interest to the dedicated student than to the general reader. The American scholar Kathleen McHugh is a stiff though clear and conscientious writer who takes care to make her research visible and to spell out any possibly unfamiliar ideas. She has the academic knack for seizing upon parallels, oppositions and ironies, and working through their permutations. Writing, for example, of Campion’s early preoccupations with ethnography and surrealism, she notes that ‘the two form a matched set, ethnography setting out to make the strange ... familiar, surrealism endeavouring to make the familiar strange’. Having set forth a handful of ‘reversible’ concepts of this kind, McHugh goes on to apply them to each of Campion’s films in turn: the bulk of the book proceeds chronologically from the early shorts to the recent In the Cut (2003), incorporating extensive plot summary and ‘thick description’.